A Seattle Entrepreneur Fizzles in Walla Walla Wine Country

Paul Willms, mastermind behind last year’s Gary Locke-endorsed China 8, leaves another trail of unpaid bills.

When last we heard from Seattle serial entrepreneur Paul Willms, his globe-spanning attempt to create a new advertising medium on the sides of cargo containers and introduce it at the 2008 Beijing Olympics had gone awry. As we described in a feature story last August (“An Ill-Fated, Dragon-Headed, Slow Boat to China,” Aug. 27, 2008), the venture fell apart just days after a splashy launch that was written up in USA Today and elsewhere. Participants in the business got stiffed, and former governor (now Commerce Secretary nominee) Gary Locke quickly distanced himself from an enterprise he had publicly championed here and in China.

Willms, whose previous Seattle ventures included a design studio that made clothing and accessories out of fish skin and a Mennonite land-reclamation scheme that was subject to cease-and-desist orders in three states, has since moved on to other mobile advertising ideas. Specifically, he sought to test his latest project this fall in partnership with Walla Walla wineries. And the outcome has been somewhat familiar.

Willms’ Seattle company, Sightline (no relation to the local green-growth group), proposed to integrate GPS devices with location-based advertising-delivery technology so that Walla Walla wine-country tourists could receive messages from local wineries and other potential advertisers as they drove past. The Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, and other Walla Walla tourism organizations were all on board with the plan, lending their names to the brochure[PDF]. Willms was quoted in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin describing the new gadgets, which would be available to tourists from October through December.

But the project never panned out. “It died on the vine,” says Michael Davidson, CEO of Tourism Walla Walla. “We haven’t heard from them [Sightline] in months.”

“We thought it was a great idea,” says Elizabeth Martin-Calder of the Valley Alliance. “Some wineries agreed to participate.” But, she says, it was determined the technology didn’t work.

Sightline’s phone numbers are now out of service. And the company has been sued by a small Eastside firm called Intersource LLC, which says it spent “hundreds of hours” developing software for the project and is owed nearly $170,000. Jack Leary, the head of the company, declined to comment on the suit.

Willms says the Walla Walla project didn’t happen “due to a lack of funding.” “But we demonstrated the interest,” he says, noting that a half-dozen wineries were willing to pay a fee to advertise on the service.

He concedes that he failed to pay Intersource, adding, “I have innovative, creative ideas and am doing the best I can. Do I have a bottomless pile of money? Not being able to pay people—as far as I know, that’s not a crime.”

Willms’ efforts have by no means been all for naught. One of the companies he founded, Erudite Inc., is marketing an acoustic method of checking for radioactive material in cargo containers. Willms helped create the system as part of a technology transfer program at the University of Washington. Willms left Erudite last fall, but the company recently conducted tests of its product at the Port of Tacoma, and a port spokesperson says the results “could be promising.”

So does Willms have a next project in mind? “I always have projects,” he says. “That’s the only way you can move forward.” But, he says, for an entrepreneur such as himself, “Seattle has not been a kind or receptive city. I have no idea how Microsoft or Starbucks made it.”